How non-Facebook users are still subject to its ‘globe-spanning surveillance’

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Mark Zuckerberg faced two days of grilling before House and Senate committees Tuesday and Wednesday to address Facebook's privacy issues and the need for more regulation for the social media site.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many have criticized the CEO for ‘spying’ on people, as one congresswoman put it, and non-consensually using their information for the benefit of the growth of the company.


Bu what struck many during the 10-hour hearing that happened over two days, was when the tech billionaire said that Facebook collects data of non-registered users of the platform, something that they had never publicly admitted to.

“In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security purposes,” Zuckerberg said Wednesday in a hearing about the social network’s privacy practices in Washington before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

His questioner, Representative Ben Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, said the practice creates “shadow profiles.”

Shadow profiles

The term seemed to confuse Zuckerberg, where he said on the second day that he did not understand what it meant, even though it had been used in relation with his platform by several news sites in the past.

What the social network does is that it builds “shadow profiles” of people who aren’t Facebook users by accessing data from inboxes and smartphone contacts of active users, several publications have reported.

“You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people that are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement,” Lujan said.

Zuckerberg replied saying that the practice was intended to help prevent malicious actors from collecting public information from Facebook users. “We need to know when somebody is trying to repeatedly access our services,” he said.

However, a former Facebook employee who used to work in its ads department took to Twitter to falsify Zuckerberg’s response.

“It’s collected for growth reasons as well,” he said, referring to the friend suggestions that pops up for first time users, which is collected from their phone contacts and other areas which includes non-users as well.

Congressman Lujan pointed out that if non-users wanted to know what data was collected about them, they get directed to another page and are asked to sign up. He said that this needed to be fixed.

Pressuring the billionaire CEO even further, Democratic congresswoman Anna Eshoo asked him a simple question: “Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy,” she said. It seemed like he was trying to give a general answer after which she cut him off, and asked the same question again, more firmly.

Zuckerberg confusedly responded: “Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means.”

How non-users are prone to data collection

Daniel Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union who is also a non-Facebook user said that there are two ways that the platform collects information about non-users like him: From other Facebook users associated to him, and from sites on the open web.

“I received an email from Facebook that lists the people who have all invited me to join Facebook: my aunt, an old co-worker, a friend from elementary school, etc. This email includes names and email addresses — including my own name — and at least one web bug designed to identify me to Facebook’s web servers when I open the email,” he said.

He added that any website that has a “Like” button encourages Facebook to track our browsing habits.

“The profiles that Facebook builds on non-users don't necessarily include so-called "personally identifiable information" (PII) like names or email addresses,” Gillmor said. “But they do include fairly unique patterns… I performed a simple five-minute browsing test last week that included visits to various sites — but not Facebook. In that test, the PII-free data that was sent to Facebook included information about which news articles I was reading, my dietary preferences, and my hobbies.”

Referring to Zuckerberg saying that Facebook uses the information to improve their advertising to show users relevant ads, Gillmor said: “This is, in essence, exactly what Cambridge Analytica did.”

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